The Gilbert 21 Project
Personal Biological Recording Software
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A number of principles tend to guide the development of the Gilbert 21 project and biological recording software. These are outlined here.

Red-tailed Bumblebee by Stephen Pardue
Red-tailed Bumblebee © Stephen Pardue
  1. Minimise time spent making records
  2. Suggest, but don't mandate
  3. Keep the focus on personal observations
  4. Maximise learning from observations
  5. Facilitate onward use of records
  6. Leverage existing free services, data and software
  7. Keep data structure simple
  8. The project is 'not for profit'
  9. Remember - it's supposed to be fun!

This is perhaps the most important guiding principle; it is, after all, the raison d'être for the Gilbert 21 project. Using a voice data logger in the field is the single biggest innovation to achieve this end. Using this method, the time taken in the field to make a record may hardly be any longer than the time taken to speak the name of the plant or animal seen. No other method of making records in the field can compare to this. There are new developments in mobile recording using apps running on PDAs or phones with built-in GPS, but no mobile application can compare with a GPS data logger with voice in terms of speed and convenience in the field.

The price of spending less field-time on the tedious business of making records is paid when you get home by post-processing the recordings using a computer program. So the other aspect of this guiding principle is to make the Gilbert 21 program - the software used to post-process information from the data logger - as efficient and speedy as possible. The total time to make a record using a voice data-logger and Gilbert 21 program should be no more than the total time taken to make a record using a method such as a mobile app. The difference is that with a mobile app, all the time taken is field-time which reduces the time you spend acutally observing and enjoying wildlife; whilst with a voice data logger, the larger proportion of the time is taken away from the field at a time of your choosing (for example whilst your partner is monopolising the television to watch Dancing on Ice or Match of the Day).

This is a key principle guiding the development of Gilbert 21. In contrast to other biological recording programs which often force you to choose values for some fields from restricted lists, Gilbert 21 will often allow you to put what you want.

Russula ochroleuca by Stephen Pardue
Russula ochroleuca © Stephen Pardue

An obvious example of where this principle is applied is in the taxon name. Most biological recording programs will insist that the names of the taxa you record are selected from an internal database of valid taxa. Recorder 6 and MapMate both do this, for example, and the reasons are clear:  these programs are fundamentally designed to collate biological records from mutliple recorders and are often used as central data repositories for data enterprises like National Recording Schemes and Local Record Centres. To allow unrestricted naming of taxa in these situations would be a recipe for chaos.

Gilbert 21, on the other hand, is designed for personal biological recording (see also the principle on personal observations). A good way to think about it is as a more structured version of your field notebook. If you see a plant hopper which you cannot name at the time, but which you have come to know as the 'diddy blue hopper', then Gilbert 21 lets you record it as such, just as you would in a notebook, because it means something to you. It won't mean anything to anyone else of course, which is why Recorder 6 or MapMate, to name but two, would reject it. But Gilbert 21 is primarily about your personal record keeping and learning. Therefore the diddy blue hopper will be treated just like any other taxa until such time as you are able to put a valid name to it.

Clearly though, you will normally  want to record identified taxa with valid names, so Gilbert 21 provides a facility for you to look up and use valid taxonomic names, just like other biological recording software. The difference is, it won't complain if you don't choose to use something it suggests.

This principle is also applied to other fields which are often restricted by other biological recording programs, notably those fields assoicated with locations and recorder's names. For example, when you enter a grid reference in Gilbert 21 - either manually or from a data logger - it can suggest a location name by comparing the grid reference against a database of georeferenced location names. You are free to accept any of the suggestions put forward by Gilbert 21 or use a name of your own making.

Cuckoo by Stephen Pardue
Cuckoo © Stephen Pardue

Many times in the field, naturalists want to record observations that aren't, strictly speaking, biological records. For example noting something about the weather or perhaps making a general comment that the birds are in particuarly good voice. Whilst they sit happily alongside biological records in personal notebooks, biological recording programs do not normally cater for these types of observation. This is because, by their very nature, they are unstructured and difficult to combine and analyse with other unstructured information from multiple recorders. But reading back these kind of personal notes can be very rewarding and aid the learning of the naturalist who made them. So Gilbert 21 provides a facility to record these types of observations - which it calls 'personal notes' - and these can be recalled and examined just like biological records.

In this respect, the personality of Gilbert 21 is different from those of other biological recording programs. I envisage that Gilbert 21 will be used to manage personal records and many of the software features are designed around that idea. Gilbert 21 will never sport an equivalent of MapMate's synching capability. This doesn't mean that records from Gilbert 21 cannot be shared: on the contrary there is a very strong emphasis on onward use of records. But software designed to integrate records from many different users (e.g. MapMate and Recorder 6) needs a whole set of features and data structures to facilitate that; features that Gilbert 21 can well do without.

Most existing biological recording programs confine themselves to large-scale analyses like distribution mapping, taking advantage of the information generated by combining records from  many different users. Gilbert 21 will support learning in a different way - I want the emphasis to be on extracting meaning and lessons from the intimate details of personal records, in much the same way as a naturalist learns something when re-reading their own notebooks spanning a number of years. I would like to think, that when I have a few years-worth of my own personal records in Gilbert 21, information will be presented back to me in ways that will stimulate ideas about my observations. For example, when I start the program, it would be nice to see what I recorded on or around the same time in the previous year and the years before that; I'd like to read back the intimate details of the comments and personal notes I associated with those records.

Although Gilbert 21 is not designed to collate observations from many different users, it is designed to facilitate the export of your records so that they can Crab Apple by Stephen Pardue
Crab Apple © Stephen Pardue
be collated and used in other biological recording programs. My aim is to provide many facilities that ease the burden of moving records from Gilbert 21 into the wider records network from where they can be used to benefit conservation planning and management.

I want to provide facilities such as the ability to export records for a given geographical area (e.g. that relating to an LRC or a Vice County). I also want users of Gilbert 21 to be able to see a full 'export history' for any given record so that they can recall exactly how they have exported the record in the past and who have been the recipients.

Gilbert 21 will make use of existing free services, data and software wherever possible. For example Gilbert 21 makes extensive use of Google Earth, linking to it to perform a number of different spatial functions. Gilbert 21 does not have its own taxon dictionary; instead it makes use of the NBN Gateway taxon dictionary web service, neatly circumventing the huge overhead of maintaining its own. As an example of making use of free data, Gilbert 21 uses free gazetteer resources from the Ordnance Survey to suggest location names for records georeferenced by GPS.

I aim to keep the data structure of records held in Gilbert 21's database flat - that means a single table for all the stuff that comprises the actual observations. This comes at a slight efficiency cost when compared to a properly normalised structure, but the relatively simple data structure of a biological record means that cost needn't be too high. An advantage is that it makes the coding and maintenance of the software far simpler as well as making the database more robust.

There are, of course, other tables in Gilbert 21's database that aren't directly part of the biological records and observations. For example there will be a number of tables around the funcitonality to provide export histories for records.

Ash keys by Stephen Pardue
Ash keys © Stephen Pardue

I have no intention of making a commercial product from Gilbert 21. But I will be very happy if any of the ideas it involves are taken on board by commercial biological recording software suppliers.

The main driving force behind Gilbert 21 is my own desire to make biological recording as efficient as possible and to prevent it from detracting from my enjoyment of nature in the field. The last thing I want to happen is to make a rod for my own back with Gilbert 21. This principle is to remind me of that!

One of the things I need to avoid is trying to make it do to much. Remembering what Gilbert 21 is not, is just as important as recognising what it is.

Gilbert 21 is not commercial software and therefore does not have to be bound by normal software design conventions. I will not worry too much about flouting these if it makes the software more efficient to use, though I will endeavour to avoid making it too counter-intuitive.